Today's Headlines and Commentary

Alex R. McQuade
Friday, May 20, 2016, 3:10 PM

“The time… has arrived. It’s time to leave Raqqa.” The United States military is warning residents of the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa to leave the city, suggesting that an offensive against Raqqa was imminent. The Daily Beast reports that “in the past day, residents of Raqqa have posted photos of the warnings on Twitter, saying they were airdropped on leaflets by the U.S.-led coalition.

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“The time… has arrived. It’s time to leave Raqqa.” The United States military is warning residents of the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa to leave the city, suggesting that an offensive against Raqqa was imminent. The Daily Beast reports that “in the past day, residents of Raqqa have posted photos of the warnings on Twitter, saying they were airdropped on leaflets by the U.S.-led coalition. However, the problem is that there’s no imminent ground or air assault planned for Raqqa by the U.S.-led coalition. Instead, the Beast tells us that the “coalition appears to be in the midst of a psychological offensive.” Read more on what one Pentagon official describes as “part of our mess-with-them campaign” from the Beast here.

Elsewhere on the ground, there appears to be “limited resistance” by Islamic State militants. That is what Iraqi commanders observed as their forces fought a long two-day battle to recapture the city of Rutbah from the terrorist group’s grasp. Rutbah lies about 240 miles west of the Iraqi capital and sits on transit routes into Jordan and Syria. Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, called the city’s recapture an “outsized strategic value.” Col. Warren also said that recapturing Rutbah helps Iraq and Jordan’s economies and denies the Islamic State a “critical support zone.” More from the Wall Street Journal.

The folks over at the Long War Journal tell us that a new video surfacing online depicts the Hezbollah Brigades sending a large convoy of its rocket launcher systems to the front lines near the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Check that video out here.

Speaking of Fallujah, it could very well be the next big battle of the war against the Islamic State. The Daily Beast writes that “the Iraqi government is putting the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah as next on its target list” not because of Iraqi citizens being tortured or suffering from starvation. Nor even as a key for dislodging the terror group from its stronghold in Mosul. Instead, “Iraqi officials have told their American counterparts that they suspect the restive Sunni-dominated city is sending jihadists to attack Baghdad.”

As the war rolls on, the International Monetary Fund is agreeing to provide Iraq with “a three-year $5.4 billion bailout to help it manage the economic fallout of its war against ISIS and low oil prices that have left a gaping hole in its budget.” According to the Financial Times, “the new rescue package will require the government in Baghdad to implement unpopular cuts in public spending and other reforms at a time when the economy is already reeling.”

And, in case you were wondering how much the United States spends on the war against the Islamic State, the final dollar count is $7.2 billion. That is an average of $11.7 million per day. More from the Hill.

In Syria, at least 21 civilians were killed by government airstrikes targeting several towns in the country’s central regions. Agence France-Presse reports that “fourteen civilians - four of them children - were killed when a barrage of barrel bombs hit the town of Al Houla and neighboring villages,” and “seven civilians, three of them children, were also killed Thursday in government airstrikes on the besieged town of Rastan.”

United States military advisers may soon see Libya up close. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said that “the Libyan government is in a ‘period of intense dialogue’ that could soon lead to an agreement in which U.S. military advisers will be deployed there to assist in the fight against the Islamic State.” The Washington Post shares that General Dunford stated “There’s a lot of activity going on underneath the surface. We’re just not ready to deploy capabilities yet because there hasn’t been an agreement. And frankly, any day that could happen.” Later, Dunford also indicated that there was going to be a “long-term mission” in Libya. The Post has more.

France has set its Middle East peace conference to begin on June 3 in Paris. The international conference is aimed at reviving peace efforts between Palestinians and Israelis following heightening tensions in recent months. Al Jazeera tells us that “the ministerial-level talks will host the Middle East Quartet, which includes the United States, Russia, and the European Union, and the United Nations, as well as the Arab League. The U.N. Security Council, without Israeli or Palestinian participation.” Despite Israeli and Palestinian officials’ participation, the French hope that beginning with non-direct talks could ease the way for a future agreement.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he would take part in the Middle East peace accords in Paris. The Wall Street Journal shares that “Mr. Kerry said he was supportive of the French Initiative, but defended his and the Obama administration’s record at trying to move peace talks forward between the two parties.” In his remarks, Secretary Kerry stated, “It is not the failure of the United States or any other country to bring people back to the table. It is the failure of those countries themselves to make the decision to come back to the table.”

Meanwhile, there seems to be some rifts shaking up the Israeli government. Earlier today, Israel’s defense minister Moshe Yaalon announced his resignation, in what the New York Times calls “an abrupt move that comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly conducts negotiations with a far-right party to join his government.” The Times has more here.

Salah Abdeslam, the last surviving member of the Islamic State team that attacked Paris in November, refused to speak during questioning during his court appearance earlier today. According to Abdeslam’s lawyer, Abdeslam invoked his right to silence because “he was ‘disturbed’ by 24-hour video surveillance in his maximum-security cell in the Fluery-Merogis prison outside Paris. The Associated Press writes that “the much-awaited questioning session ended abruptly, dashing French authorities’ hopes that Abdeslam would provide clues about the Islamic State group’s strategies and what exactly happened November 13.” Reuters has more on the story here.

In the latest NATO news, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that the Alliance “has reached ‘broad agreement’ to seek another meeting with Russia before NATO leaders meet in Warsaw this July.” According to Secretary-General Stoltenberg, “the ministers ‘all agreed in the current situation that we need a platform (like) the NATO-Russia Council to pursue transparency, predictability, and to work for enhancing mechanisms for risk reduction to avoid dangerous situations, situations which can spiral out of control.” Russia has welcomed the announcement, but indicated that any dialogue must include respect for Russian interests.

The meeting between NATO members’ foreign ministers yesterday in Brussels resulted in an agreement that the Alliance “should remain in a support role, providing training and support to the Libyan and Iraqi governments” in regards to the Islamic State fight. According to the Wall Street Journal, “off the table is a resumption of the combat role the Alliance played in the 2011 war in Libya or a formal role for NATO in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” Secretary Kerry stated that “nobody there was suggesting NATO should have a forward combat role. But there is a complementary support role NATO can play.” NATO members remain divided over how deeply involved the Alliance should be in the Islamic State fight.

If China moves to claim a reef off the coast of the Philippines, the United States must act. So says Filipino President Benigno Aquino III. Yesterday, President Aquino stated that “the United States would be obligated to take military action in the South China Sea if China moved to reclaim a hotly contested reed directly off the Philippine shore.” Although President Aquino said there are no indications that China has imminent plans to develop the Scarborough Shoal, he suggested that there would be a harsh response. Read more from the New York Times here.

Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, “urged China on Friday to ‘drop the baggage of history’ in an otherwise conciliatory inauguration speech that Beijing’s Communist Party rulers had been watching for any move towards independence.” President Tsai, the country’s first female leader, also “said that Taiwan would play a responsible role and be a ‘staunch guardian of peace.’” Reuters has more on Taiwan here.

President Obama is still weighing whether to lift an arms embargo on Vietnam just days before he is set to arrive there. Reuters cites “human rights concerns could a sticking point” for the decision. Yet, “support has grown within the U.S. administration and on Capitol Hill to fully remove or at least further ease the ban on weapons sales, bolstering ties between former wartime enemies Washington and Hanoi to counter a rising China.” But any move to end the embargo with Vietnam would certainly infuriate China.

Google is fighting France’s “right to be forgotten” order. The BBC tells us that “Google has appealed to France’s highest court after the country’s data watchdog ordered it to delete some of its search results globally.” The BBC has more on the story here.

“He left the United States to join ISIS and then fled the group after five months.” That same man is now speaking out and revealing the details of his journey into the Islamic State and also warning others not to follow his footsteps. NBC News has more on their exclusive interview with the ISIS defector here.

The Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act 2017 includes a provision that includes funding to design a Guantanamo Bay alternative. The Hill reports that the provision for funding a design for an alternative Guantanamo was not included in the summary of the NDAA released by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. Just last night, the Committee released the complete text of the bill. According to the Hill, the provision reads “The Secretary of Defense may use amounts authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available for the Department of Defense for designing and planning related to the construction or modification of such facilities.”

EgyptAir Flight 804’s wreckage has been found in the Mediterranean Sea just 180 miles north of the coastal city of Alexandria. However, the Guardian tells us that “investigators appeared no closer to explaining why flight MS804 suddenly plunged into the sea killing all 66 on board during a routine flight between Paris and Cairo.” The abrupt turn and steep drop the aircraft took shortly before disappearing from radar has triggered terrorism concerns, according to the Washington Post.

However, even if the plane crash is the result of terrorism, some are indicating that the Islamic State’s response to news is atypical of its post attack behavior. Check that out here. Additionally, you can follow live updates on the incident from the Guardian.

Parting Shot: The Onion flashes some dark humor, satirically reporting that a drone strike intended for a Yemeni ISIS base that accidentally hit a wedding in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Credible information from operatives on the ground indicated a high-value target on the southern outskirts of Sana’a, however our Hellfire missiles veered some 7,700 miles off target and, regrettably, struck the Epstein-Miller wedding at the Breakers Resort and Spa.” No reports on whether anyone at the Pentagon was laughing at the Onion taking aim at, well, their lack of aim.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Dakota Rudesill tracked Congress’s library of secret law.

Nicholas Weaver provided a quick note on building webcams.

Jack Goldsmith indicated that the new Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is still harmful congressional shirking.

Alex Loomis asked why the lower courts ignoring Zivotofsky I’s political question analysis.

Nora Ellingsen featured the Tuesday edition of the military commission trials occurring at Guantanamo this week.

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Alex McQuade was a national security intern at the Brookings Institution. He recently graduated with a master’s degree in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy from American University. Alex holds a BA in National Security Studies and Justice and Law, also from American University.

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